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10 Surprising Facts About My Soapmaking History & Philosophy

soap science and info
a collage of Kenna's early projects

When I teach soapmaking classes and workshops, I always share little tidbits about my soapmaking that surprise students because they don't tend to follow the norm for soapmakers. I like to share these surprising facts because I think they help soapmakers realize that their path in learning the craft is personal to them, and that other soapmakers' experiences and advice may differ, even mine or any other soapmaking teacher!

1. My first batch of soap I ever made was Kathy Miller's All Vegetable Soap in 2004 (that was also her first batch of soap in 1998!

I was introduced to cold process soapmaking by a long-time soapmaker, Judy of Sunrise Soap, who has been around the block since 1996. I believe she directed me to Kathy's website, but it's been so long that I can't remember!

The recipe I used from Kathy is gigantic compared to most first time soapmaker's first batches (8 pounds of soap!) The reason for this was that Kathy's recipe was created to use even amounts of readily available ingredients, including the old Red Devil Lye canister and jars of Coconut Oil available at the grocery store. It also used a ridiculous amount of water (26% lye solution strength) and a super low superfat (only 2%!), which ensured it was super slow to trace and easy to handle. On recommendation, I used a small (new!) kitty litter pan as a mold, lined with a trash bag.

The oldest soapy photo I have: a peppermint and alkanet soap I made in 2009

2. Most of what I know about soapmaking comes from trial and error as well as self-guided research.

Believe it or not, soapmaking didn't grab me by the horns until I screwed up a batch of soap. It was too easy and smooth-sailing for someone like me who enjoys a good challenge. After I realized that there were plenty of variables and a lot of "rules" that were merely guidelines, I found myself intentionally messing with the process and my formulas just so I could see what would happen.

 Testing micas for soap stability and color

Hundreds of batches of soap were subjected to rule-breaking, process changes, and strange ingredients. And when I couldn't figure out why something worked or didn't work, I turned to the local library to find answers in chemistry. I made soaps with single oils, a range of temperature extremes, different kinds of mixing tools and molds, various alternative liquids and additives, and so many more weird things! To this day, there are still plenty of experiments I'd love to dive into!

3. I didn't start my first soap company until 2010 (six years after I started soapmaking) when my second daughter was born.

Before I opened my soap company, I had already experienced plenty of entrepreneurial fun, including freelance graphic design, web development, and professional printing. In between my different businesses, I worked in various retail positions focusing on inventory management, vendor relationships, and stock control (dotted throughout with crappy jobs like cashiering!)

 A look back at Kenna's first company, Amathia Soapworks

At the time my second daughter was born, I wanted to move back to heading up my own company so I could stay home with my kids. I was tired of doing graphic design and web development, so I chose the hobby with the most persistence in my life at that point: soapmaking. Having the years of experience in both running a small business and making soap really paid off when I dove into starting my own soap company. I have my background to thank for all of the pools of knowledge I can pull from, even now as a soapmaking teacher and biz coach!

4. I went at soapmaking solo without the internet as resource until 2011.

A lot of newer soapmakers have been blessed with the overwhelming amount of online resources and communities around soapmaking. Back when I started, Kathy Miller's website was the only resource I knew of, and even then, I didn't really use it.

In 2011, I stumbled across The Dish Forum and that began my immersion into the online soapmaking community. I had already started Amathia Soapworks, my first company, at the time. There were hidden gems around on the internet that I didn't find out about until this time, including Yahoo! Groups and mailing lists. In the years that followed, Facebook groups, YouTube videos, and blogs became another way to connect with other soapmakers. We are so blessed as a community to have a plethora of online resources for soapmaking these days!

5. All those intricate designs and complex swirls? I don't love them as much as folks think I do.

A lot of soapmakers who started following me within the last couple of years ago did so because of my extensive messing about with rainbow soaps or putting together design techniques and tutorials. As such, it's usually quite a surprise for soapy folks to find out that as a general rule, I don't make soap like that.

 One of many rainbow soaps over the years!

I'm actually a no-nonsense kind of soapmaker. I prefer natural colorants, essential oils, simple swirls, and little to no additives. If a batch of soap takes me more than 15 minutes to prep, mix up, and pour, I'm so over it. I've never gotten into crazy embeds (landscape soaps, I'm looking at you...) or multiple step processes (cream soap anyone?) That's all just way to time-consuming for me!

6. I'm really not a vegan. Or even a vegetarian.

Even though most of the recipes and tutorials here on Modern Soapmaking are vegan-friendly, it has nothing to do with my personal lifestyle. When I operated my soap company, there was a hole in the market for vegan-friendly products that were also beautiful, fun, and luxurious, and thus that's what I formulated for.

Despite the fact that I definitely consume animal products in my diet, using animal products in skincare totally squicks me out because, well, I'm weird like that. (I also don't drink cow's milk because I have a little weird mental block about not being a baby cow...) I make exceptions here and there (like lanolin and honeyquat in skincare/cosmetic formulating), but for the most part, I've found that some animal products (like goat's milk or silk in soapmaking) don't seem to make as much of a difference in formulating for me when compared to plant-derived ingredients.

7. I don't prefer to use a lot of the holy grail oils that other soapmakers adore.

I often get strange looks when students find out that I don't tend to use one of the most common soapmaking oils: olive oil. Early on in my soapmaking, I tackled formulating and testing different oils, and found I personally prefer other oils to olive oil when it comes to its fatty acid profile and unsaponifiables in soapmaking. The plus side to this is that I never had to deal with the constant cost fluctuations on olive oil!

 Making a slab of one of Amathia's best sellers: Look, Ma! No olive oil! ;)

I also rarely used palm oil in soapmaking, so I didn't ever develop a reliance on it. I did, however, use palm kernel oil often but found it to be easily replaced by shifting around other oils and including babassu or butters instead. My biggest challenge in moving forward with palm-free soapmaking wasn't replacing palm oil itself, but palm-derived cosmetic ingredients in other formulas - such as stearic acid in shaving soap.

8. My ignorance to safety measures early on increased my sensitivity to a huge number of cosmetic ingredients.

When I first started making soap, I was sensitive to fragrances and some FD&C colorants, but it was pretty manageable (except when entering department stores - ugh!)

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not being educated enough on safety during my first several years of soapmaking and rarely wore a respirator. This has resulted in overexposure to a lot of cosmetic ingredients, and developing some intense sensitivities including a full-on allergy to lavender.

This is why I'm such a safety advocate and push full personal protective gear for soapmakers, including gloves, safety glasses/goggles, and a respirator. (Fun fact: I also really try to push soapmakers to stop using glass in soapmaking. I personally used Pyrex until 2011 without knowing any better - seeing one explode from the lye solution micro-etching the glass over time is plenty enough to shock that out of your system!)

9. I've hand-stirred countless batches of soap.

When I teach soapmaking 101, I usually have students hand stir their first batch of soap in class. A lot of times, there are cries of "But Kenna! We can use a stickblender... can't we?!" Of course you can! However, I think it's extremely valuable for a soapmaker to understand how slowly a batch of soap will actually trace without a stickblender. It gives a really good reference point for later on when you start trying complex designs or accelerating fragrances to remember, "OH, wait! I can hand stir this and it'll be easy!"

 My favorite stickblender model at work

I have personally hand-stirred so many batches of soap that I can't count them all. In some cases, it was to control trace with an accelerating formula or additive. And other times? Well, stick blenders don't last forever! I've burned out over a dozen stick blenders over the years. Nowadays, I always have at least three stick blenders on hand so I have backup.

Despite burning so many out, I have a soft spot for the Cuisinart ones I like. Why? They're cheap, the bell and motors are interchangeable, and I like how strong they are - not too strong, but not weak as all get out. To this day, I still have not spent more on Cuisinart stickblenders compared to what it would cost to buy a single Waring heavy duty immersion blender (but it is starting to get close!) For large batches, I've always used a power drill with paint mixer attachment.

10. I'm not immune to soapmaker crushes - I have my favorites, too.

While I am much pickier about handmade soap that I was ten years ago, I do buy from other soapmakers and support the industry because there are some seriously talented makers out there. My biggest girl crush on a soapmaker is Hajni from Mianra Soaps. (And she even uses Olive Oil.) I was introduced to Hajni's soaps five (ish) years ago in a super small international soapmakers swap that Amy of Great Cakes Soapworks pulled me into. When I started Modern Soapmaking, Hajni was happy to share with the community in one of the first interviews I did.

 The goodies from one of many soap swaps I've participated in

I don't tend to participate in soap swaps anymore, but I do highly recommend doing so if you are a new soapmaker. (You can find them on forums, Facebook groups, and more. Brambleberry tends to host soap swaps, too!) Participating in swaps gave me a better understanding of what I do or don't like in soap, as well as making me a better formulator by seeing how my soaps performed in various conditions, water types, locations, etc. 

Soapmaking itself is such a unique journey for each soapmaker, so it's always interesting to see how our experiences vary! Leave a comment below and share a surprising fact or experience you've had on your journey!

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